Writing Resources from Fifteen Minutes of Fiction
Hot Purple HighHay River, New Town, Northwest Territories, Canada, in the early summer of 1973, nestled as it was just upstream from the terminus of the Hay River, on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake, was an interesting place.
Hay River's raison d'être was primarily as a distribution terminal. Goods, and sometimes services, coming into the Northwest Territories must either be flown or trucked in. With virtually no airport facilities for large transport aircraft, as the town's airport lacked long runways, shipping large quantities by air wasn't economically feasible. However, with the introduction of the Lockheed Hercules C-130, and other Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) cargo aircraft, all that would change. But that was a dream for the distant future. not the "now" of my story. For the present, Hay River had to contend with reality. Goods were trucked to Hay River and transferred to ships. From there it was a short haul across Great Slave Lake to the various towns and the City of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.
Today, as it was then, air transport was still required for the hop from Yellowknife to Norman Wells. A short distance really; just far enough so that products could then be transferred from the headwaters to the more navigable waters of the Mackenzie River. The Mackenzie River is the longest river in Canada and the 13th longest river in the world. Near the terminus of the Mackenzie, beginning just to the west of Point Separation, lies the Mackenzie Delta, comprising an area of 12,173 square kilometers, larger than the Mississippi River Delta (even after Hurricane Katrina's effects) at 12,140 square kilometers. On the eastern bank of the Mackenzie Delta, along the southern shore of the Beaufort Sea, lies the town of Tuktoyaktuk which has a runway of major proportions. Tuktoyaktuk is the only settlement I know of, north of the 60th parallel, which wasn't built around the airport's main runway. Today, with a strong headwind, you can land a modified Boeing 747 on that unpaved runway and still have room to turn around to allow passengers and freight to disembark close to the terminal. But, I'm getting ahead of myself as Tuktoyaktuk changed my state of employment and leads to another story.
Our little group of 80 graduate college students were billeted for one night inside the local High School. Even today, no matter how hard I try, I can't forget that school.
How many schools have you seen, in your travels, which were painted inside with every possible shade of purple on its walls? How many schools have you seen where the only right-angle to be found *anywhere*, inside the school, was between the wall and the floor? The architect hated flat walls and straight staircases. Fortunately, the building code required that all doors be rectangular and the floors, flat. The local school board must have been given a deal they couldn't turn down on purple and white paint purchased in forty gallon drums.
Every floor we could find in the place was carpeted with standard indoor/outdoor all-weather carpeting to cushion the sounds of heavy booted footfalls and, in our case, our heads while we lay inside our sleeping bags. None of us had thought far enough ahead, before we left Seneca College in Toronto, to bring along a pillow.
We arrived at the school around 17:00 Mountain Daylight Time which gave us plenty of time to get settled in and squared away. Everyone was more than happy to lay out their sleeping bags in some favoured spot, change clothes---especially socks and underwear (those of us who were dumb enough to wear underwear)---and get a bite to eat. The indoor temperature was around 18°C/65°F; not balmy but, considering that winter hadn't quite ended up there yet, it wasn't bad. We were indoors and out of the ever present light rain. Little did we know that, while the building had been rented for our use, no one had foreseen the possibility that the temperature might fall during the night.
Twenty-one hundred hours rolled around and the sun had officially set. It was time for all of us to get some shut-eye. There was just one small problem: the temperature had fallen to 10°C/50°F and, according to the local radio Disk Jockey, we could expect overnight lows of 2°C/37°F. For myself, the prospect of two was eight degrees too much.
My sleeping bag, with only myself in it, was guaranteed to be good down to 10°C/50°F, at which I was already, and I had my doubts about its ability to keep me warm even at that temperature.
My already chilled body swiftly told my semi-chilled brain that it was time to make a few revisions in the rules.
I got up, got dressed, and went looking for the Boiler Room. I hadn't gotten very far before I encountered Derrick who'd had the same notion but wasn't entirely sure what to do. Derrick had graduated in Electrical Engineering and though he knew how to jimmy a preset thermostat, there didn't seem to be one handy. As I'd graduated in Mechanical Engineering, I knew exactly what to do. We had purpose, knowledge, a few tools and motivation: We wanted heat! With these instruments in hand we set off to find the Boiler Room.
Finding the Boiler Room was easy. So was finding it locked. Trivial problem. With nothing more than a disassembled steel coat hanger and some braided cotton cord (though neither braided nylon cord nor polypropylene rope will work; they're both too slippery, I never home without all three) it's relatively easy to gain entrance to a locked door when the "locked door" in question is in a school, or similar, institution.
Because all school doors use lock-sets which are designed for fast egress. In other words, if you're inside, and want outside, turn the knob.
The only trick is to get the cord, via the experienced use of a disassembled steel coat hanger, twice around the inside knob and have the two ends outside the door. Saw away at the ends of the cord, with as much pressure as you dare, and, voilá: the door pops open!
Once inside the Boiler Room I was faced with my worst fears: a Low-Pressure Heating System. Low-pressure systems, i.e., systems that operate at pressures less than ten pounds per square inch, are notoriously under-designed. To put the matter another way, if you guess incorrectly with your settings, they have a nasty tendency to explode. Not good for public relations. Especially since we were guests who supposedly had "accidentally" gained entrance to a room that, as far as anyone knew, was locked.
Not to worry. I got the settings right. By about 02:00 the inside temperature has risen to 21°C/70°F. Unfortunately, the temperature was supposed to have stopped rising at 15°C/60°F. Obviously, I wasn't as good as I thought I was.
By the time we left the school the inside of the place was pushing 32°C/90°F and showing no signs of stopping.
As far as I know, nobody was blamed for the heating going wonky---not even the custodian in charge.
To judge the scene by the buses at 08:30 that morning, one would think we were a well-seasoned troop of soldiers. Everything and everyone was packed up and reloaded onto the buses in short order. That lack of wasted effort would prove to be one of the hallmarks of that trip. The teachers, i.e., the adults in charge, never quite got used to it.
What was the cause?
Elementary, my dear Watson: We were leaving the scene of the crime as quickly as possible. That school was hot!
© CdnGhost 26 August 2005
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